The Ghost at the Old Lychgate, St Mary, Berkhamstead
Sometimes, when the rice has not been properly swept from the ruddy path
And the footprints from each wedding guest scar the surface with erratic scuffs,
When the cherry blossom petals, stirred into little eddies, stack like confetti on the grass
You might catch the leaf like rustle of a congregation long gone from the church,
Glimpse the shadow of a rain cloud when there is empty sky, shaped like a young girl in a pleated frock,
Always a bridesmaid…
In the heat of the May morning you can sometimes hear the sighing
Behind the sound of birdsong from the cedar, mixed with the rustling of a thrush
Scrubbing below the border hedge. The words can be just made out
By the more discerning listener, the one who hears the scraping
Of the beetle on the hoggin, or the whisper of a butterfly or moth in nervous flight,
No, always a butterfly…
“Never a bride”. The words are uttered in light breathy murmurs
That send ripples through the unmown grass beside the graves,
Bending blades in a melancholy breeze. The shade of oak trees
Leave their cool spots by the porch wall, where the last of the snails shelter from the morning heat.
Sometimes the sounds of marriage can be heard across the glebe land, drifting in the shimmering air,
And the more perceptive watcher, the one who sees the movement of the lichen on the tombstones
May see an apparition stand beside the church gate, drowned out by sunlight, or so the locals say,
Always a bridegroom…
© Martin Porter 2005
This elegaic poem is based on an accidental visit to a church one evening while I was walking near Tring in the United Kingdom and is not intended as a description of the building, but more an attempt to capture the atmosphere and emotions experienced.
The church described is a synthesis of the now “retired” church of St Mary the Virgin, Pitstone, the church of St Andrew, Little Berkhamsted and the Parish Church of St Saviour, Jersey. The actual church and consequentially the old lychgate does not exist as a single entity.
The poem relies on detail to give it realism. The setting is described throughout the poem. The brown hoggin church path, the cherry blossom, oaks and cedar within the hedged unmown grounds, the porched church and all there to fix the experience into a geographical location. None of this is real.
The ghost story is also an invention. There are, of course, a great many ghost stories set in church grounds. These often feature jilted brides who, no doubt because of the shock, go on to commit suicide. This poem uses this formula, but adds a variant. This change is not entirely capricious but based on the related experience of a family relative.
The only real aspect of the poem is the ghost in the story, although even this has a twist. On first reading the audience is led to believe that the ghost is the bride, as might be expected in a traditional story. The last line twists this to identify the bridegroom as the spectral presence. But such ghosts are just the substance of fiction. The real ghost in the poem is perhaps better identified as the church of St Mary, Berkhamsted as mentioned in the title, no longer a “living” church, but rather drifting in-between the existence it once had and its ultimate fate as a dead building.